On how your brain plays tricks on you

We think highly of ourselves. Or better said, we think highly of our own thinking. It's easy to find insecurities around our looks (I'm losing hair, I'm overweight, ...) or our skills (I cannot sing, I cannot speak in public, ...) but somehow we all think of ourselves as objective, reasonable, ultimately rightful human beings. Well, we're all wrong.

Relevant research have been conducted over the last 6 decades about the limitations of our judgement. As a reference for further reading, I'm leaving you a bunch of links and books and a headline about some of its main conclusions.

  • Cognitive bias: introduced by Tversky and Kahneman in 1972, they refer to shortcuts taken by our brain to favour specific options against others for reasons beyond logic. There is a long list of cognitive bias, out of them you will find hindsight bias (inclination to see past events as predictable), confirmation bias (the tendency to filter evidence to support your pre-conceptions) or belief bias (to measure the strength of an argument depending on your judgement of the conclusion). Thinking, Fast... Slow would be a good book to tackle this.
  • Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely: covers a number of thinking modes that challenge the rational choice. Among them, our poor judgement when confronted with free offerings or the asymmetry of our weighting between lose options and gain options.
  • The Power of Habit, by Charlse Duhigg, deals with the creation of habits. The repetition of a certain patterns of behaviour reinforced by some form of reward is reflected in our brain as a hard wired neural pathway that saves energy but overrides rational behaviour. Learn in sthis book how this has been used to manipulate us over the past decades.

While you go through all this you will feel resistance. "Bah, I don't do this", you'd say. You do. We all do. These limitations on our judgement are hardcoded in our brains for evolutionary purposes, they are simply useful to survive, that's why we developed them. Some of them speed up decision making which is fundamental in threatening environments, some others are more efficient in terms of resources. In other words: you cannot escape from them. In other words: you are not right.

The significance of these findings are profound, and I'm extremely surprised this does not get broader attention. I guess it's only comparable to understanding that the Earth moves around the Sun and not the other way around: totally counter intuitive, utmost humbling realisation. You should be shaken by it. You should be pushed out of your geocentrism, egocentrism in this case, and question everything you believe in.

As with most things in life, first be aware, then walk the road of human relativism. At its end there’s a better you.

Have a great weekend all. As of me, I’m left alone with my kids for two days as my wife is leaving for a business trip, so it’s time to ignore anything I just said and move from relativism to absolutism ;). Wish me luck!

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